During the midst of a ride up Winter Park on the high speed Comet T Bar in 1966 my Norwegian cross country ski “instructor” demonstrated how to take off one thin racing ski, wax it and put it back on as I desperately tried to balance on a similar set of sticks. Calling these sticks skis is a stretch, they could more accurately be described as gossamer thin balsa wood core, hickory wrapped toothpicks attached to the user’s low top track shoe thin boots by a binding affectionately and appropriately called a rat trap.
My grandparents, after a trip to Scandinavia, had hired Nordic help for our family ski lodge; resulting in an opportunity to learn what has been my favorite sports habit for the past 50 plus years. Nordic skiing’s first time in the spotlight was 1976 when American Olympian Bill Koch won a silver medal in Innsbruck, the first and only medal won by our countrymen in this discipline until we “Skinny Skiers” were finally returned to the spotlight by Jessie Diggans and Kikkan Randall who brought home the Olympic gold in the Nordic sprint race two weeks ago in Korea.
My own search for completely inconsequential “records” during my long Nordic career resulted in two odd first-feats. I took an old pair of Fisher Europa 99’s, one of the first composite metal edged “backcountry” skis, out to our North Pole equipment “test” camp half way between the Canadian coast and the North Pole – 200 miles out on the Arctic Ocean ice pack in early March, 1983. As a sidelight to testing tents and sleds for our planned first man-hauling trip to the pole the next spring (a goal we failed to reach) I planned to make the farthest north telemark turn.
There is certainly a lack of vertical on a frozen ocean, but there are numerous ice pressure ridges – piles of sea ice blocks pushed up and fractured as the pack is moved by strong ocean currents. I managed to drop my knee for one turn on a sloped tabular slab.
I also believe I was the first person to barely manage to navigate the Glenda Splash course on wooden Nordic skis sometime in the hazy 1970’s. No leap for me off the jump into the pond, I fell at the lip and slid ingloriously into the icy pond for a long swim to infamy.
My Nordic lessons have proceeded unimpeded for the past half century in our mountain home. One early trip, likely about 1967, started with my first time on the Winter Park Ski Area to Berthoud Pass traverse. I believe I likely knew better, but the brilliantly blue January day found me half way across the 12,000 foot high stretch of tundra in blue jeans, a turtle neck cotton undershirt and a thin wool sweater topped by a thin nylon windbreaker. The sun’s radiant midafternoon warmth barely masked the 10 degree high for the day.
If this 16-year-old had been familiar with the relatively mild descent from the ridge down Second Creek – my planned route – I would have been fine completing a route half as long as my eventual path. The combination of the mystery of the possible steepness of the lower slopes masked by the roll off at the top and an already healthy respect for avalanche terrain led me to continue on toward the pass.
By the time I reached the ridge above the pass, faced with a 1200 foot descent to the road below – the last of the afternoon warmth disappeared as the sun set as our valley made the daily transition from being a relatively benign place to being more like mountains on the dark side of the moon. As close to the unconsciousness brought on by hypothermia as I have ever come, I found myself somehow on the edge of the blessed pavement of Berthoud Pass.
I certainly surprised the driver who had to brake suddenly to avoid me as I stepped in front of his truck. I climbed into a warm cab, finding a warm six pack of beer set directly under his floor heater. I know alcohol is the last thing you want if approaching icicle status, but the beverage’s ability to dilate capillaries in my frozen fingers and its wonderful propensity to deaden pain helped usher me back to the land of the living as I returned to the valley floor with my savior.
Another very early lesson concerning finding quality equipment resulted from my first long tour with my Lake Placid leather “shoes” (definitely not boots) up Corona Pass where another frigid January day made it very difficult to eat my frozen PB&J sandwich. My numb toes masked the damage being done as the boots broke over my toes during the long kick and glide up the pass to the Rifle Site Notch Trestle. When my feet finally thawed upon my return home I found the black and blue was not a result of the cold, it was because every toe nail was bruised by the boots – resulting in the loss of almost all of my nails over the next few days.
If you believe I’ve learned anything from this long Nordic career, you would have scratched your head to find me at the top of the long fairly gradual descent from the Byers Peak summer trail head in the Fraser Experimental Forest this past Sunday – again largely dressed in cotton. I had on my flimsy racing skis – thinking the downhill would be tons of fun on the freshly waxed sticks. Wrong again – evening turned the hard packed ski track into something more similar to a toboggan run and my first tumble left me wet – again dealing with the cold which soon follows sunset.
But hey, if we can’t continue to dance on a self-inflicted wilderness edge what is the sense of playing in one of the planets most entertaining ballrooms? So put on your favorite sport’s dancing shoes and head to the woods, hopefully we might run into each other if one of us has tread too closely to disaster and may be of need of a bit of assistance or at least a freshly broken trail to follow home.